The rest is commentary: ‘Suppose a Sentence’

By Louis Klee

Brian Dillon goes in pursuit of the pleasure of the sentence in his latest nonfiction book

In the autumn of his 18th year, the year after he crossed the Alps into Italy with the armies of Napoleon, Stendhal felt his vocation had been decided: he would become a writer. Almost two decades would pass before he struck upon a “brilliant idea” for a literary work. De L’Amour, as he called it, was not a novel but an amalgam of an uneasy sort – a bundle of anecdotes and observations purporting to be “an exact and scientific description of a brand of madness … the disease of the soul called love”. He imagined it would appeal to “a mere hundred readers”, but perhaps even less, perhaps to a single person in Paris “surreptitiously reading a volume which she thrusts into a drawer at the slightest noise”. One of the book’s first readers described it as “certainly the most bizarre that M. de Stendhal has written”. I doubt these readers were particularly convinced by its airs of objectivity (“if the author occasionally uses the first person singular”, Stendhal insists, it is only so as “to impart with as little monotony as possible what he has observed in other people”). Stendhal had been in love – a hopeless and unreciprocated love for a married woman – and felt that, to understand his book, it was “absolutely imperative” that the reader should have been in love too. Only in that way would they recognise the truth in the strange and inspired metaphor he chose to capture love’s distinctive madness.

Love, Stendhal thought, resembles a stick thrown in a salt mine. It’s an odd and arresting image, and it originates here:  

At the salt mines of Hallein near Salzburg the miners throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later, through the effect of the waters saturated with salt which soak the bough and then let it dry as they recede, the miners find it covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The tiniest twigs no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw are encrusted with an infinity of little crystals, scintillating and dazzling. The original little bough is no longer recognizable.

When he first witnessed this, Stendhal sat down by the mineshaft and sketched the stages of love on the back of a playing card. The analogy is this: the beloved is like the branch cast into the salt mine of the lover’s imagination. They emerge so embellished with the imagination’s enchanting, diamond-like crystals that even their imperfections are further proof of perfection. “Once crystallization has begun”, as De L’Amour has it, “you delight in each new beauty that you discover in your beloved. But what is beauty? It is a new potentiality for pleasure.” But there is something melancholy here: like the little bough, the beloved has vanished under the crystal’s splendid freight.

Stendhal’s metaphor for love turns up in one of the 28 pairs of sentences and commentaries that comprises Brian Dillon’s newest work of nonfiction, Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions). Whatever the title might suggest, Dillon is quick to stress one thing his book does not do, “at least directly: tell you how to write a great sentence”. He adds that he has “no general theory of the sentence, no prescriptive attitude toward the sentence”, and that, finally, he is not even sure it is “a book about sentences”, since even the word about “may not be the right word – better towards or among”. Perhaps, as he says toward the end, it is simply a book pleasurably swept up in “the adventure of the sentence”.

Each chapter begins with a sentence, quoted in its entirety, before turning to Dillon’s exegetical remarks. The following is from Roland Barthes’ description of tempura in a book written after his three-month visit to Japan:

The eel (or the piece of vegetable, of shellfish), crystallized in grease, like the Branch of Salzburg, is reduced to a tiny clump of emptiness, a collection of perforations: here the foodstuff joins the dream of a paradox: that of a purely interstitial object, all the more provocative in that this emptiness is produced in order to provide nourishment (occasionally the foodstuff is constructed in a ball, like a wad of air).

Dillon’s gloss starts out as exaltation: “Roland Barthes is the patron saint of my sentences.” He locates something of Barthes’ seductiveness in his tone: “analytic but entranced”. Then he sketches the quotation’s context, notes (and imitates) its distinctive punctuation, and finally ventures:

In Barthes’s appropriation of the Stendhal image, there is a venerable cliché at work: cooking as an act of love or care, towards foodstuffs as much as the family or friends to whom they are offered. But something else too: a sense that with the proper loving attention a morsel of Japanese food will reveal itself to be fantastically metaphorical, just as piece of language … will also under the critic’s touch.

We are still in the realm of love, but it is now a question of the love of language. With Suppose a Sentence, Dillon has said that he “wanted to write a book that was all positives, all pleasure, only about good things”. The difficulty in this is aptly conveyed in Barthes’ final piece of writing, still in his typewriter when he had the accident that led to his death. It was an essay on Stendhal called: “One Always Fails in Speaking of What One Loves”. It puzzles over a problem that will occur to any critic: that so much of the language of praise, no matter how eloquent, discerning, and loquacious, “simply says: there, there is an effect; I am intoxicated, transported, touched, dazzled, etc”. “Any sensation,” Barthes continues, above all “if we want to respect its vivacity and its acuity, leads to aphasia.”

Dillon moves in the orbit of this problem not just in Suppose a Sentence but also in his earlier 2017 book Essayism, which is less an essay on the essay than a cento of the essays that stir him to reverence. After quoting from Maeve Brennan’s essay “Broccoli” – “I took hold of the sauce spoon, as the waiter had done, and I began to move it over the broccoli, and then I quickly put it back in the sauceboat. I could not remember which end of the broccoli you eat. I couldn’t remember” – Dillon adds: “Of course there are excellences in this passage other than the wavering precision of its address to things: the repetition of ‘I couldn’t remember’ is especially admirable.”

It would be tempting to mimic Dillon here and say that we find him wavering in his address to the admired sentence. It would be tempting, further, to see the whole of Suppose a Sentence in terms of emulation, as “touchingly marked by striving” to “imitate and even surpass” the sentences that it lauds (to use words Dillon applies to Susan Sontag). We always glimpse Dillon in pursuit of others he esteems. Even against the express warning that he might die if he ventures across a highway, he still cleaves to the path of the artist Robert Smithson: “I had no choice. I set off under a cloudless sky, looking for new ruins, trying to hear as well as see the broken aesthetic Smithson wrought (or brought back) to the place.” Seen in this light, Suppose a Sentence is a book of attempts to accentuate the pleasure of the sentence by repeating it, ramifying its effects until, to return to Stendhal’s metaphor, the imagination’s gleaming crystals have monumentalised these beloved artefacts of language. Cognisant of this, searching for a way to summarise his book, Dillon states: “I suppose the word is: affinity.” It seems this is a theme he will develop further in his writing. Recently he announced that Essayism and Suppose a Sentence are parts of a triptych; he is now at work on a third volume, provisionally called Affinities.

The context of Essayism and Affinities is significant for understanding the purpose of Dillon’s book. It encourages us to think of Suppose a Sentence as a contemporary instance of the commonplace book, in which quotations from approved authors are assembled and juxtaposed in a way that may spur further reading and writing. Something like bricolage or scrapbooking, commonplacing shares much with the essay – so much, in fact, that the essays of Montaigne and Bacon are sometimes conceived as little more than records of reading, a notebook made public, the thinker’s open atelier. “Someone might say of me”, Montaigne writes of his essays, “that I have here only made a bunch of other people’s flowers, having furnished nothing of my own but the thread to tie them.”

Dillon offers us a florilegium of 28 prized sentences pulled unsystematically from various sources over 25 years of copying them “into the back pages of whatever notebook I happen to be using”. One of the threads that ties them are several compositional rules that he sets himself that he immediately breaks. “For instance,” he says in the book’s introduction, “if I was sufficiently attracted to a sentence that I copied it out in a new notebook I had reserved for this project, or transformed it from an old one, there was no going back. I had to write about that sentence, and not choose another from the same work or by the same author, let alone drop both from the list.” If he had diligently observed his rules, Suppose a Sentence would have been a different book. As it is, it flirts with the essay as a generative, schoolroom writing exercise and often reminds its author of his own experiences as a student – how “Aged twenty-one, I thought I’d found the whole of George Eliot in a single sentence” – or a teacher “grading undergraduate essays in English literature”, when he’d find himself “dutifully huffing at my students: ‘This is not a sentence’. And even, happy hypocrite: ‘Not a sentence!’” Suppose a Sentence’s attitude to the essay as exercise is best captured by its title. The phrase comes from the modernist Gertrude Stein, who commandeered with a relentlessness that yields the most estranging, exhilarating effects, the style of a grammatical compositional manual in her How to Write (1931).

The real thread that binds Dillon’s book of sentences is not a set of constraints, but something more essayistic in spirit: the wish to honour the mystery of these fragments that have had an enduring pull on him. The origins of his sentences are diverse: they come from novels and poems through to a sermon by John Donne, Shakespeare’s longest and most famous play, a short radio report by Samuel Beckett on the bombing of Saint-Lô, an art review by Frank O’Hara and a photo caption written for Vogue by Joan Didion. Almost all are in English, with the exception of one in Italian and another French. Some are long, oblique and incantatory – Dillon pleads for our “patience” when parsing a sentence by Thomas De Quincey, “like waiting for a photograph to develop” – while others are modest, “economic sentences”, like these three words from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette: “The drug wrought.” But the greatest majority are drawn from a common source: they are from essays by major figures like Thomas Browne, John Ruskin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin. Together they stand as instances of the “elaborated, painterly prose” that Annie Dillard calls “fine writing”. Without exception, Dillon’s chosen sentences are the conscious product of writers. At one moment, he even confesses: “I am one of those readers of magazines and journals who turn to the list of contributors before the table of contents; I want to know who before I know what.”

I once asked Dillon (he was visiting Cambridge to present three of his sentences) why he was never taken by the beauty of an accidental or anonymous sentence. Why should it always be the funereal elegance of a meditation from Donne that sets his imagination to work and not something that a teenager in a funk has etched into a bus window on the way home from school? “Everything is trying”, I once read on a bus window. It had been scratched with someone’s keys. For the rest of the journey, as we swooped down the dark highways from Tuggeranong to Belconnen, this sentence accompanied me. It seemed to portend something, like the phrase from a poem, “Life is long”. Though Dillon’s sentences are mostly the “decorous, controlled” prose of essayists, there are a few moments where contingency finds its way back in. For instance, he relates how, having given up trying to describe an eclipse in her essay, Dillard overhears someone in a cafe saying, “Did you see that little white ring? It looked like a Life Saver. It looked like a Life Saver up in the sky”, while the only footnote in Suppose a Sentence recounts how a garrulous, unhappy aunt of Dillon’s often used a self-coined solecism: “for the simple reason is…” These are important moments, I feel, when the windows of Dillon’s writerly pantheon are opened out and the cool breeze of chance rushes back in.

But perhaps the most striking similarity among Dillon’s sentences emerges from how he is drawn again and again, almost without fail, to the moment when a sentence begins to mimic, through its formal effects, the very thing it is describing. Ruskin’s description of clouds is “a rhetorical cloud, exquisitely formed and likely any moment to turn ragged, dark, unruly”; Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” begins by feverishly failing to hold itself together; Bowen’s description of looking out from a moving car on the outskirts of Rome is like “a fluid system that once set in motion may generate new clauses, new examples, new glances through the windscreen or passage window”; Brennan’s sentence on a glance is practically a glance itself; Dillard’s reflection reflects on “the fragile machinery of words and sentences”; Claire-Louise Bennett’s musings on a party oscillate between “the exactingly exact and the falling-to-bits vague”, and “isn’t this”, Dillon asks, “all rather like the shape or structure or the very point of a party?” Here language no longer points to what it names but seeks to become it. Sounds are not arbitrarily linked to meanings but try to persuade us of their necessity through sheer descriptive prowess. Strangely, we receive the most compelling case for this if we decide to read all the book’s sentences in order, without their commentaries. Read out loud, they sound as one deep solemn canorous sermon addressing some absolutely crucial, absolutely elusive thing: the sermonics of a pure language, choking on its own throat.

In pursuit of the pleasure of the sentence, Dillon stumbles on another thread that links his fragments: “As for thematic connections, all I will say is that a remarkable number seem to be about death and disappearance.” This latent theme is there from the very first sentence, a variant of the final words of Hamlet: “—the rest is silence. O, o, o, o.” What, Dillon wants to know, “are they telling us, these four diminishing ‘O’s?” Surely “nothing more or less than the vocal expression, precisely, of silence”. In one version, Hamlet delivers his epigrammatic line and says nothing, leaving us in what a philosopher once called “the undifferentiated abyss, the black nothingness, the indeterminate animal in which everything is dissolved”. In another, he adds four gratuitous sighs: “the white nothingness, the once more calm surface upon which floats unconnected determinations like scattered members”. The essayist is someone who has chosen the second of these silences. It is a choice full of melancholy and pleasure that brings to my mind the Shakespearean inflection in a translation of Hillel the Elder’s ve’idakh perusha hu: zil g’mor: “The rest is commentary: go study it.” At the end of one of his commentaries, Dillon quotes again the sentence he began with, adding only: “The sentence remains mysterious, which is perhaps why, when I first copied it out to serve as the heading for this fragment, I must have tried unconsciously to multiply, somehow thus to explain, its effects.”

Louis Klee

Louis Klee is an Australian writer and John Monash scholar.

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